Vincent Hugo Bendix: From elevator operator to a titan of industry

Bendix ended the era of the hand-crank starter and put real brakes on nearly every car sold

By Wheels

Jul 28, 2021 3 min. read

Article was updated 10 months ago

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Vincent Hugo Bendix was 16 when he decided to head to New York, alone. All he wanted was a chance. From an early age, the founder of the Bendix Corporation, the company that introduced a reliable four-wheel brake system, showed the kind of spirit that comes around once every century or so.

He was creative, fascinating, outlandish and extravagant. And he was willing to take a few chances. Opportunity, as it turned out, was in the Bendix blood.

Bendix began working as an elevator operator in a hospital, then moved to the maintenance department, where he was taught the basics of electricity. Within two quick years, Bendix worked in an accounting office, a law firm and finally as an engineer.

Early colleagues described him as “someone with the energy and aptitude of 10 men.” But it was the early American mode of transportation that fascinated him.

Bendix began to drift into mechanical engineering. He specialized in automobile engine design, and eventually worked on motorcycles and cars for the Holsman Automobile Company, where he learned all about internal combustion engines.

By 1907, less than 10 years out on his own, Bendix had designed and built his own car: the Bendix Motor Buggy. Seven thousand Bendix machines were built before the mismanaged company declared bankruptcy. It would be the beginning of a legendary run that would cement Bendix as an icon of American industrialism.

After moving back to engineering — while selling Cadillac cars in Chicago to make money — Bendix struck gold. Once night late in 1909, he finished (and quickly patented) what would become known as the “Bendix Drive,” which would eliminate the hand cranking of an automobile engine. The first automobile to use the Bendix starter drive was the 1914 Chevrolet “Baby Grand.”

By the end of the decade, the Bendix starter became a standard in all cars produced in the United States: 1.5 million vehicles.

The sudden fortune led to more money and more time for inventions, including the patent rights for a braking system, which led to the establishment of the Bendix Brake Company in 1923. With his own business, Bendix turned his energy toward perfecting the brake system of the time and, by 1926, he created the first four-wheel automotive system that greatly increased safety.

Production climbed to 3.6 million brakes in 1928, from 650,000 in 1926.

With his auto business in good shape, Bendix expanded into the aircraft business, which was ironic given the fact Bendix hated to fly and only did so a handful of times in his life. After creating the Bendix Aviation Company, he invented the pressure carburetor for aircraft engines, another invention that found its way into almost every American plane.

Bendix built two enormous mansions, one in South Bend, Ind., and in Palm Beach, Fla., as well as his own airfield. He formed his own four-passenger-helicopter company, divorced twice (the second time after reaching a settlement of $2 million in 1932) and, by 1939, listed liabilities of $14 million and assets of a little more than $1 million.

In 1945, at age 63, Bendix died of a heart attack — officially a coronary thrombosis — at his home on East 57th Street in New York City.  Exactly 47 years earlier, he had come to the city with a dream. He left in a coffin, bound for Chicago and a burial in the city’s Grace Memorial Cemetery.